Do MBA's and business majors have an advantage in the case interview?
People from polar educational backgrounds (e.g., literature versus math) interview for consulting roles and face the case interview. Does it matter whether your education background covered business training? Do MBA’s have an advantage?
It’s much like preparing to take the SAT or ACT in your senior year of high school after taking pre-calculus in your junior year. (For international audiences not familiar with the SAT/ACT, it is a college admission exam in the United States that covers content including algebra and geometry). Having those additional math courses beyond the level of math covered in the SAT and ACT is not helpful because those subjects aren’t tested.
But if your coursework has exposed you to those advanced math concepts, then you are more likely to have memorized key math concepts tested on the SAT (i.e., rules of algebra and geometry) and are more likely to appreciate those concepts. Those two characteristics will improve your SAT performance. However, people who have not taken pre-calculus can develop those two characteristics by spending more time memorizing formulas and by developing an appreciation for math.
When we think of this analogy for the case interview, people without business coursework may be less likely to have memorized the key business concepts (e.g., concepts in mergers and acquisitions); and are less likely to enjoy discussing business. Regarding the second point, non-business candidates from engineering backgrounds are less likely to enjoy the creative qualitative parts of the case interview like brainstorming and structuring qualitative questions. Non-business candidates from humanities backgrounds, on the other hand, are less likely to enjoy the math questions on the case interview.
So if you are not from a business background, how can you mitigate these two issues so you can perform as well as someone with a business background? Regarding the first point, spend more time memorizing the generic frameworks to help you consider the practice practices for analysis in mergers and acquisitions questions, entering a new market, profitability and so on. Also, you must pay special attention in the clarifying questions part of the interview to make sure you ask what I call “stupid” questions (i.e., basic background questions that may make you feel stupid when you ask them but are critical to understand precisely before you begin analyzing the problem) to ensure you understand the client’s business sufficiently before you diving into problem-solving mode.
Regarding the second point about enjoying discussing business, if you are someone with a technical engineering type of background who may not have as much of a deep appreciation for creative work, I recommend that you spend more time repeating the exercises that involve using business periodicals: such as practicing brainstorming creative answers to a real company's problems or practicing structuring an approach to solve a real company's problems. These exercises will help you appreciate how creative thinking can have real impact on business problems that companies in the news are facing today.
Now if you’re someone with a more humanities-type of background who may not have as much of a deep appreciation for quantitative analysis, I recommend that you spend more time practicing approaching math questions in case books where you structure an approach and build organized tables. When you are able to repeat this exercise with accurate math, you’ll develop an appreciation for the insights that you can drive from organized math tables with quantitative analysis.